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The New Bella Of The Ball
Sarah Pileggi
May 23, 1983
Italy is making its America's Cup debut with a 12-meter named Azzurra and an attitude best described as romantically realistic
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May 23, 1983

The New Bella Of The Ball

Italy is making its America's Cup debut with a 12-meter named Azzurra and an attitude best described as romantically realistic

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"Our problem is not of the helmsman, but of all the Italian helmsmen," says Cino Ricci, who, as Azzurra's team manager, is the man who will make the final crew choices. "We must teach match racing to many helmsmen. If all the helmsmen learn match racing, then we can choose the best. The Americans can do that because they began many years ago. We must work for that."

The Americans also have had many years of experience in designing Twelves. Azzurra's architect, Vallicelli, has designed Brava, a 44-foot-class competitor in the 1982 Sardinia Cup; Filo da Torcere, a one-ton champion in 1980; and several other successful ocean racers. Using Enterprise, a former America's Cup contender purchased from Dennis Conner's Freedom syndicate in 1981, for study, and the facilities of the University of Rome's naval testing tank, Vallicelli and a staff of seven worked steadily for five months to produce Azzurra. She is 65 feet long, with an aluminum hull and a displacement of 61,600 pounds. She has a "knuckle" bow, a broad reverse transom and a slight sheer. Her sails, designed in the Genoa loft of the U.S. firm North Sails, are the latest thing in Kevlar with Mylar laminate.

"I'm very happy with the hull," says Vallicelli. "I think it's correct. It's fast. Enterprise is good, but Azzurra is a little faster to windward and, I think, a little faster running. But for me it is very important to make another design. Five months is enough time for people like the Americans, who are experienced in building and tank testing, but for the first time it is too short."

All winter long at their temporary quarters in Formia, an ancient seaside resort between Rome and Naples, the 28 Italians from whom the America's Cup crew of 11 will be drawn, practiced match racing. Every morning at 11 Azzurra and Enterprise left the ferries and the fishing boats of Formia behind and headed out into the Gulf of Gaeta. The Aurunci Mountains rose abruptly from the sea behind them; to the south on clear mornings you could see the cone of Vesuvius. On the shore a group of interested Formians leaned on the railing of a highway overpass to watch their departure, and in the afternoon when the two boats with the towering masts returned, the Formians were there again, pointing, talking and curious.

Explaining the America's Cup, not only to Formia but to all of Italy, has been the full-time occupation of Comandante Gianfranco Alberini, the tall, slim, 52-year-old retired navy officer who is secretary-general of the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda and head of the Azzurra syndicate. Alberini has been in almost constant motion, traveling between the syndicate's headquarters in Milan, a branch office on the Piazza Adriana in Rome and the training center in Formia, with side trips to Naples, Turin, Venice, Sardinia and wherever else Italians want to hear the Azzurra message or view the Azzurra film. With patience, courtesy and patrician charm, bowing correctly over the outstretched hands of the ladies, Alberini explains again and again that the America's Cup is to sailing what the World Cup is to soccer. But he's always careful to point out that the America's Cup probably cannot be won on the first try, or maybe even the second; that the difficulties of mounting a 12-meter challenge for the first time are too great and the time too short. "But," the comandante says, "Azzurra is the beginning of a long-term commitment to America's Cup competition.

"We're trying not to create any expectations that can later end in disillusion," says Alberini. "We try to underline that in the case of the America's Cup, the de Coubertin motto holds—participation is more important than winning. Knowing what kind of problems we are facing, we will be very, very happy to have good results even if we do not win races. That, of course, is hard to explain to people who do not know anything about this event."

The expectations of a nation that has just won the World Cup of soccer are hard to dampen. No sooner had Azzurra hit the water than auspicious parallels were being drawn between her blue hull and the blue shirts of the Forza Azzurri, the blue team of soccer. Note was also taken of the fact that a 12-meter, like a soccer team, requires a crew of 11.

"In the back of many Italians' minds," said a Roman journalist, "there is always the feeling that just because it is Italian, even the unexpected could happen."

The other facet of the Azzurra challenge that's difficult to explain is its cost. "We still have people asking us, 'How is it possible to spend seven miliardi of lire for such a little boat?' " says Skibinska. "They don't understand what it means—promotion, public relations, and further, that this is all paid for by private companies, not by the government."

For all of Azzurra's high-powered modern organization, however, an inherent Italian sense of balance humanizes its operations and occasionally a burst of native insouciance cracks its sleek facade. Team Manager Cino Ricci rides around Formia on a motorcycle, often with a passenger on the pillion behind. Children of crew members clamber over the two wonder boats when they are tied up at the town dock, spinning their wheels, popping in and out of their cubbyholes, with nobody saying "Don't touch." At an early February regatta, during which Azzurra and Enterprise were to demonstrate for the public and a number of sponsors and guests the intricacies of match racing, the wind died completely before the competition was finished. Agusta, the sponsor that makes helicopters, leapt into the breach, however illogically, sending one of its whirlybirds aloft to swoop down over the two boats and create wind where there was none. And here's the quintessentially Italian part: When the attempt failed, nobody minded. Nobody was embarrassed. Nobody pointed an accusing finger at anyone else. Instead, the gesture was gratefully acknowledged and generously interpreted as an idea that might have worked.

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